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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 6/13/10

Teach a Man to Fish

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Rowan Wolf
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There is the old Chinese proverb "Give a man a fish and you feed him for today. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Well along the Gulf of Mexico fishing is a way of life and the people of the Gulf and of the United States are learning some hard lessons. These lessons are tied to the issue of livelihood and "way of life." They are tied to an awakening that there are things you can't put a price on.

What is happening with the BP oil catastrophe in the Gulf is the destruction of precious and irreplaceable marine environment. More specifically, it is resulting in the destruction of whole ecosystems. Currently, the most visible destruction is occurring in the rich fisheries of the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The "solution" for BP is to pay fisherman (and others) for their loss of income. However, as has been eloquently stated by some of the local people interviewed, this is about more than money. How do you put a price on a heritage?

We can look at "heritage" in a number of ways. The connection to fishing (including shrimping, crabbing, and the oyster farms) has passed from one generation to the next. Even those not directly engaged in these activities for their livelihood are variously impacted from "recreational" and subsistence activities, to the daily food and cuisine of the Gulf Coast. It is at once a natural heritage and a cultural one. It is at once a personal embedding and part of the deep bonds of shared experience and environment. There is no dollar amount that can be placed on a culture. Hiring local men to clean beaches or haul boom may (barely) meet their family economic needs, but does not replace their livelihoods. In fact, for many folks, their skills are largely worthless (from an economic perspective) with the loss of the Gulf and the marshes.

This human-caused destruction has "economic" impacts for sure. However, more importantly it is removing the capacity to continue a way of life. It is removing the capacity to pass on a heritage. This is an important component of the story that is an almost hidden public side of this disaster. It makes real an issue that many in the United States have failed to understand or appreciate. Namely, you can't pay people for the destruction of their lives and culture.

Capacity is an important concept to grasp in this disaster. The economic failure of families and businesses that are happening along the coast is not a matter of lack of desire, or skill, nor ability. It is that the capacity to attain those things has been removed. One can't wish fish into existence. One cannot dust off the oysters coated in oil and Corexit and have those oysters reproduce. What BP's unchecked gusher has done is to undermine the capacity to continue - economically and culturally.

In a society that has increasingly been focused on "everything is economics," and "everything is money," the importance of "other things" has been minimized beyond recognition. This has been part of a long, embedded process of cultural minimization. It is historically reflected in the forced life changes placed on the tribes of the United States where the deliberate destruction of ways of life were seen as positive things to do. Namely, bringing the "heathens" into the "right" world of the European-based colonizers.

This theme was so "successful" that it carried over into other endeavors beyond the shores of the United States - particularly in South America, though certainly elsewhere. The "plans" historical and modern were to bring "those" people into the modern age. We could use their land and resources for our purposes, but we would give them ... villages down the road with running water, schools, and a medical clinic; or new jobs in factories producing goods for our consumption (that they could not afford).

One of the ugly realities was (and is) the removal of the capacity for "those" people to continue "their way of life." All too frequently, there is a virtually permanent removal of that capacity. So, for example when the forests of the Amazon are destroyed to make room for ranches and resource extraction, the lives of the people of those forests are gone forever. This is part of what we are witnessing right now along the U.S. Gulf coast. The death of the ecosystem means the death of a way of life for millions of people. With the shrimp, crab, fish gone - likely for decades if not forever - then those who have for generations made their livelihood from that natural wealth have had that capacity to live and pass on "their way of life" ripped from them.

Sure, BP (even at its most generous) may pay the fishers, and shrimpers, and tour guides, and restraunteers (and many others) for their economic losses for this year (and perhaps several years in the future). However, money will not replace their "way of life." Money will not replace the soul of a culture.

The capacity to fish has been removed. Giving a previously self-supporting people "fish" feeds them only for today.

It is said that the people are "angry." The reality is that as the oil and toxic dispersant have rolled into the marshes and shores, the people have watched a death and they are in a rage of grief. Something central to their lives and souls has died and is dying. However, it did not simply die, it was murdered. What justice is there for this crime? How ?do you make a people - and an ecosystem - "whole?"

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Rowan Wolf is an activist and sociologist living in Oregon. She is the founder and principle author of Uncommon Thought Journal, and Editor in Chief of Cyrano's Journal Today.

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